Controversy 101

22 Jan

So, Tuesday night Amercian Idol opens with three “Hollywooders” in the first 10 minutes. Blond Russian girl was pretty good and the young vocal chord challenged 16 year old is going to be interesting. There were a couple of freaks, but mostly folks who just wouldn’t take no for an answer.

After a quick hour, the last of the auditionees arrives. One Carly Smithson, originally from Ireland, performs a unique, yet adequate rendition of I’m Every Woman. Her backstory is that she tried out in Las Vegas in 2005 in Taylor Hicks’ lot but because of a Visa snafu, she was disqualified after “wowing” the judges. She was distraught on losing her chance two years ago and wants so much for this to be “her break”.

Now, what American Idol conveniently omitted in this backstory is that Carly Smithson is her married name. Her maiden name was Carly Hennessey, who was signed by MCA Records (now Geffen) in 2002. The massive failure of her debut CD, Ultimate High, has been the subject of case studies and a Wall Street Journal article of music industry economics and just what goes wrong for the majority of new music acts.

From Stereophile in 2002….

In “Pop Singer Fails to Strike a Chord Despite the Millions Spent by MCA,” Jennifer Ordonez details how the Universal Vivendi label spent millions grooming a teenage Irish singer for a career as a pop star. The label provided 18-year-old Carly Hennessey and her father with a car and a nice apartment in Marina Del Rey, plus a generous stipend for living expenses. MCA also piled on the vocal coaches, image consultants, songwriters, arrangers, producers, and promotional experts. Total investment, prior to the release of Ultimate High, Ms. Hennessey’s debut album: in excess of $2.2 million. Total sales of the CD, as of February 25: 378. That’s approximately $4900 at retail.

The Hennessey debacle is perhaps more typical than most music executives wish to admit. Industry rule-of-thumb has it that a typical big-label album must sell at least 500,000 copies to break even. Ordonez quotes SoundScan figures showing that of the 6455 new albums distributed by major labels in the US last year, only 112 sold that many. In the music industry, perhaps more than in any other, the winners pay for the losers. That’s the real reason Greene and his colleagues want to keep their cash cows in the barn.

Nowhere in the discussions of the music industry’s malaise has there been any mention of the fault lying with management, as in the case of Carly Hennessey. Nor has there been any suggestion that executive compensation might be part of the problem. The music industry is one whose top tier is particularly heavy with big titles and big packages. “A decade ago, people thought if you paid CEOs $5 million or $10 million, you could get them to work hard and smart, but now it has to be hundreds of millions of dollars,” Harvard Business School professor Joseph Badaracco recently told WSJ editor Carol Hymowitz. “It’s a very rare company where pay falls at the top when performance falls.”

Carly Hennessey had grooming, a record deal, support and even a video:

Now, this puzzles me. Isn’t this diametrically opposed to what American Idol is about? Aren’t they looking for new talent that hasn’t been given a shot? Since Carly hasn’t had a deal for over five years, should all of the early investment in her not count? The specific “rules” say you can’t currently be under contract, so technically she qualifies but is this in the real “spirit” of American Idol? If so, why does it appear that American Idol is less than forthcoming with Carly’s entire backstory. Did they really think that people wouldn’t remember her or have a clue as to who she is? After all, this IS American Idol and scrutiny is king. Or, is that what they are after?

Perhaps they need controversy to generate interest and viewers. While I feel for Carly and her evident plight since her initial foray into the music industry, I’m conflicted in that she’s had her chance. Isn’t it a bit unfair to others who are waiting to be plucked from obscurity?

I hear Annie Lennox is without a label, maybe she should have run down to San Diego….


Posted by on January 22, 2008 in american idol


11 responses to “Controversy 101

  1. shrewspeaks

    January 23, 2008 at 12:00 am


    I agree that AI has positioned on the backs of the likes of Kelly (i was just a waitress) and Elliott (plucked from a pharmacy) humble status to superstardom. The fact that in recent years, Kat whose father has more politco clout in LA (not to mention MOM) and even Hicks having released (yes, yes released) two previous CDs smacks of stacking the deck. Yet some of these people have had bad breaks or misfourtunes a pleanty…and I believe Hennessey is amoung them…and I like seeing how the cope with what appears to be for them the LAST chance. I must admit I felt Hennessey’s desperation to make it to Hollywood…and afterall AI is TV and desperation makes great TV…well that and the guarantee that at least one person can carry a tune and will be a solid performer for the summer tour.

    Now the real travesty if the Hennessey history is that we have a girl who is pretty, seems nice, can carry a tune…and what appears to be the WORST song ever written. This just shows the need for modern poets…and you can’t tell me poets can’t write pop…look at Carol King’s career. All I will say and then I will leave it is Hennessey deserves a chance at better material…oh wow if she wins she would have to sing the corination song…nevermind.

  2. brc

    January 23, 2008 at 8:08 am

    I think I agree with Shrew. If she has only sold 378 CDs, even though she’s technically had her break, for whatever reason it didn’t take. I don’t mind her being in the competition.

    I do, however, feel that AI should be forthcoming with the backstory. By omitting it, it feels sort of like they’re trying to hide it or slip it past us.

  3. Sunny

    January 23, 2008 at 8:30 am

    Actually no where is it written that the premise for Idol is to find that unknown waitress/waiter waiting for their big break. It’s a “reality” (in so much as reality TV goes) talent show, period.

    I say give that lass a chance like anyone else. After all when contestants come on the show, it’s a level playing field. No matter her previous cred, she’s got to make it to top 24 and then on to the voters. I had not ever heard of her before and by the looks of the record sales, not many others have either.

  4. music maven

    January 23, 2008 at 9:07 am

    I believe that there are “rules” about “qualifying”. Like they can’t or aren’t supposed to perform between making the Top 24 and the show starting. I believe that Taylor had to get some special permission to keep playing so that he could pay his band during that time. Also, while maybe unwritten, AI positions itself as “making dreams come true” and has certainly played up the “plucked from obscurity” angle. You can’t have it both ways. People just won’t go there.

    Anyway, like brc, I think that AI not being forthcoming with her whole story is either 1.) an effort to hide it through omission or 2.) purposely trying to create controversy to stir interest. They painted her as the poor immigrant who missed out, on a technicality when truth be told, she’s been here 10 years and has had major attention from the label, albeit six years ago.

    I think she’s one of the pre-ordained because they liked her in 2005 and she’s got a story. However, I keep coming back to the fact that she’s had $2.2 MILLION spent on her career already. The vocally challenged kid, David Archuleta, has had maybe $2 spent on him.

    Lastly, I leave you with a couple of tidbits from VFTW. Carly Hennessey’s CD contained songs primarily written by Danielle Brisebois. Besides her fame as Archie Bunker’s granddaughter, Ms. Brisebois has also written songs for Clay Aiken and Kelly Clarkson. Matter of fact, Kelly’s song Just Missed the Train from her Thankful CD, was actually ON Carly Hennessey’s CD.

    Just all a really strange coincidence that she’s had so many Idol “brushes”?

    Sorry, it’s starting to smell.

  5. music maven

    January 23, 2008 at 1:17 pm

    Well, I was evidently N-KORECK about David Archuleta. He’s a STAR SEARCH KID

    Why is this conveniently omitted in the current backstory? Isn’t it relevant?

  6. brc

    January 23, 2008 at 3:04 pm

    Is that the vocal chord boy?

    I think it is highly relevant.

  7. jenfera

    January 23, 2008 at 7:39 pm

    I just don’t know what to think about all of it anymore. I still enjoy the show for the entertainment value, especially this year with the writers’ strike. There is nothing else to look forward to. Maybe they should just rename the show “American Exposure” because that seems to be the main goal at this point.

    What’s this about my girl Annie not having a label? Is her new CD not a hit? Of course, I never hear anything from it on the radio, but I figured it was probably a hit in Britain at least.

  8. music maven

    January 23, 2008 at 9:36 pm

    Sony crawfishes:

    Notice who her Management is….

  9. Pingback: Carly Smithson
  10. Jan

    January 27, 2008 at 9:41 pm

    Annie Lennox’s contract ended. She wasn’t dropped from her label. The press put their own spin on the story as usual. I just heard a song by Jon McCleary today called pin your spin. He says, “Don’t pin your spin on me”. It cracked me up.

  11. Sarah Blake

    March 19, 2008 at 9:19 pm

    I think there are a whole lot of things we don’t know. Why, indeed, does a CD with that much backing not sell? (I studied music business at a university in the early 1990s.) It seems to me that someone did not do their job marketing; but that is just conjecture. This is happening with both book and music publishing lately: the authors and artists are expected to do more and more of the work while getting less of the cut financially. This is why a lot of authors are moving to self-publishing and a lot of musicians are going to independent recording. If you really want something interesting, go browse There are some crummy artists there but also some amazing ones that rival any commercial artists.

    I wish Carly well.


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